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Burning Up.

Written by Jose Solis

One of the most famous traditions of the Catholic Holy Week is the “Quema de Judas” (Burning of Judas). This carnivalesque celebration is predominant in most Spanish speaking countries and takes place late at night on the Saturday before Easter.
The ritual consists of the burning of a human-like figure that represents Judas Iscariot. It’s common for the whole community to gather and create the doll using old clothes, paper and firecrackers.

The figure of Judas goes beyond being a Biblical reenactment, it’s also meant to expiate the town of all its guilts, sins and misbehavior. With this ritual, they atone for their sins, while punishing the treacherous Judas. In Costa Rica, it’s traditional to have a public hearing where Judas is accused and then sentenced to death. Before the figure is set on fire, his testament is read. Said document is made up of a series of inside jokes, written in verse in the style of traditional “bombas”.

Considering this ritual lacks any of the solemnity attributed to the Holy Week, the Catholic Church doesn’t approve this burning. They don’t condemn it either, which is why it’s common for this to take place right after the eight o’clock mass on Saturday.

However, this tradition doesn’t come off as festive and exciting as it might sound. During the last few years, the Quema de Judas has also served as an excuse for vandals to trash private property and commit felonies. In 2009 a furniture store in San Rafael, Heredia, was burned to the ground by people who had attended the Judas festivities.

This year, the police department of San Jose has prepared over 500 units to patrol the areas where the Quema takes place. This will be done in accordance to prevision laws which suggest authorities should be able to contain potentially problematic situations.

Have you ever attended a Quema? Do you think it’s wise for the police to supervise them?

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Legalize It?

Written by Jose Solis

If you’ve ever walked down the Avenida Central in San José, chances are that more than once you’ve seen someone light up a doobie.
The pungent smell of pot has become almost characteristic in some areas of town and most citizens are rarely shocked when they see beggars and junkies use drugs in the streets.  While marijuana isn’t legal in Costa Rica, it’s widely known that you are allowed to carry a certain amount for “personal use”, as long as you’re not dealing. However, there’s a section of the population that thinks marijuana should become legal for whatever you want to use it, period.

Marijuana supporters will take part in a large protest in the Plaza de la Democracia on April 20th, to ask Laura Chinchilla’s government to legalize this drug. One of their main points, according to their manifesto, will be to show society that marijuana has nothing to do with criminal activities or death. From a medical point of view this might be relatively accurate, especially when compared to tobacco use, but judging by the number of deaths reported in drug busts and police raids, marijuana is just as deadly as cocaine or “harder drugs”.

In the past, Costa Ricans have proved to be very divided on topics that include political change. While it’s quite unlikely that marijuana will be legalized in the predominantly Catholic country, it will be interesting to see the public reaction to such a massive pro-drug protest. “It’s time for this country to become part of the first world” says a supporter of the cause alluding to the legalization of marijuana in some European countries.

But is Costa Rica ready for such a radical change? What’s your take on this controversial topic?

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In Between Coffees.

Written by Jose Solis

“This is perfect weather” said Mercedes Oller about the sunny, yet windy, day when I met her for this interview.

The 24-year-old had recently arrived from the US, where she’d been touring for the past month with her band Las Robertas. This all-girl (and guy in drag) band, arrived in the music scene less than two years ago and has achieved the kind of success you see about in sepia-toned independent documentaries.

After playing in small venues all over their home country, they exploded in the indie blogosphere, with a fuzzy melancholy that has made them one of those rare bands whose music breaks your heart while making you shake your hips.

Meche, as she’s called by her friends, is your typical young woman, or maybe not so much. A recent college graduate in interior design, her down-to-earth vibe and passion for anything that has to do with the arts is as infectious as Las Robertas’ tunes. Keeping up with all the references she makes takes a slight effort, but she does this unintentionally, in a completely innocent way. You know how there are so many artists out there who bask in their knowledge and speak like Tarantino characters; well Mercedes is just not like that and her humbleness makes her a sort of rock band oxymoron.

Coming from a very musical family (her brother plays in 424, but we’ll get to that later…) as a child she studied ballet and learned to play the guitar. She’s been in other Costa Rican bands but as she’ll tell you, the best music in the country is often obscured by the larger bands that have been playing the same thing for decades and have created a sort of blind allegiance that encourages forced traditionalism over friendly coexistence.

More than being a successful musician, Mercedes is also a “hardcore Josefina”, who loves her hometown so much, that any afternoon with her can turn into a personalized guide of “dos and don’ts” in the Costa Rican capital. She drives, but feels just at home in the city’s public transportation where she usually pops out because of her effortless but elegant style.

Sitting down for coffee, I ask her why is it that tourists have no idea that Costa Rica has such a rich cultural environment and particularly why is it that tourists have no idea about what San José is all about. The capital usually serves as a hub for the thousands of foreign visitors who stay in San José overnight before leaving for the volcanoes and beaches.

If you ask any of them why they don’t stay in San José longer, or quite simply not leave it at all, they will tell you it’s because there’s nothing to do in town.

Mercedes might be the person to prove them wrong. As a musician, she knows all the best night spots where you might be surprised by a neo jazz quartet or a moody punk band. As a designer, she can point out all the architectural riches and galleries that usually get lost among the serial-made structures in town.

With this in mind, I asked her to help me come up with some lists of music and places that you can’t miss in San José.

Top 5 Bands

If you ask anyone what they know about Costa Rican music, they’ll probably come up with some typical instrumental tunes or something like Malpais. When I asked Mercedes she chose this,

Zopilot

”They have great energy!” she says of the band where her fellow Las Robertas’ drummer Franco Valenciano, serves as percussionist. Mercedes thinks their “spontaneous rock captivates the audience and makes them dance”.

Niño Koi

”Their music is so emotional, it’s a total mental trip” but don’t expect them to be all mellow and dull, Meche adds that Koi knows “how to put on an awesome live show!”

The Great Wilderness

Las Robertas’ Monserrat Vargas is also a member of this band, which Meche praises for their “intense sounds”.

424

“They’re probably the most popular band and they reunite the best musicians in town”, one of them being her younger brother Felipe. 424 recently became only the second band in history to have reached the number one spot in Latin MTV’s Top Ten. Their “great charisma and presence” makes them the perfect option for a “great live show”.

Monte

This project just recently made its first appearance in the Costa Rican music scene and Mercedes calls them her “new favorite”. She raves, “they have the best of the best! Best songs, best music, best performances!”.

Now that we know the bands, where can we find them?

Top 5 Venues in San José

Lobo Estepario
This small venue is located right across from the National Museum and has become the go-to spot to see up and coming bands from all over town. There’s not much of an “ambiance” but its down to earth efficiency makes it quite an experience.

Jazz Café is perhaps the most interesting venue in town, they have a great food and drinks menu, often feature astounding bands, by the way it’s the San Pedro one, not the one in Escazú!

El Steinvorth, this hip lounge is located within a historical building in the heart of downtown San José. They usually have a different event each night of the week, their dancefloor sessions are particularly popular.

El Cuartel de la Boca del Monte
The place to be on a Monday night has become as chameleonic as the people who attend it. Weekends can feature bands that play every genre, from ballads to surf rock.

Sala Calle 15, this intimate venue is ideal for “unplugged” sessions and artsy events. Its location makes it a great spot to move on for after parties in hip bars and lounges.

I asked her how people were supposed to find out about all these concerts and impromptu gigs, given that San José is often plastered with fliers for metal bands, metaphysical events and such, but rarely showcases indie bands.

She recommended people checked out the bands’ websites and followed them through the most popular social networks or 89 Decibeles.
Keep in mind that most of these bands play just for the love of it, they are rarely sponsored and the ones that get signed with record labels are even fewer.

Of course, music isn’t everything, and Mercedes also knows the best non-music, spots to visit in town. From thrift shops to traditional diners, she gives us a look at her own private San José, the results might surprise you.

Chelles

This diner is located in San José’s central avenue where it’s stood for decades. Mercedes thinks the food there is great, especially because of its convenient 24/7 schedule. While “gallo pinto” is the Costa Rican dish by default, you have to try the rice with squid from Chelles, which is also “great [spot to go to] after a show”.

Kalu

This gourmet café serves what Meche calls “the best food in town”, its accessible prices, great ambiance and all over high quality make it a great spot for an afternoon coffee or an early drink. Mercedes is also fond of their gallery and store where you can buy unique pieces made by local and international artists. You can buy Las Robertas’ debut album Cry Out Loud here as well.

Parque España

This little park sits right across from the Casa Amarilla and the INS in downtown San José and it’s very close to Barrio Amón, one of Meche’s favorite neighborhoods. She revealed being a fan of the park’s tranquility and its greenness. The park is also next to the Contemporary Art Museum which offers some amazing free concerts during the summer.

Area City

This is one of those places you would never find out about if it wasn’t for some local guidance. Meche says “this garage kind of bar [in Barrio La California] has the best music for partying”, they play bands like The Smiths, Jesus and Mary Chain and newer stuff. This would be a bar where you would find Las Robertas’ blasting out of the stereo all night long, also “they have cheap beer and drinks”.

Romantica Venezia

As you might know, or not, the indie scene is best known for its DIY-ness, dressing up in vintage and retro style is the thing to do and thrift shops have gone from meh to cool with them.
Meche’s favorite thrift spot is this huge shop in San Jose, where she says you will find “great pieces, low prices and [wait for this…] awesome Latino music”.

Hmmm, perhaps it is all about the music in the end.

Check out Las Robertas’ debut album in stores now! Also, be sure to check out some of the best hotels in San José, who knows, you might even be lucky enough to catch an awesome concert nearby.

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Reforest Central America

Written by Mireille

reforestation-campaign5 million trees will be planted in Central America on June 25th, in a campaign called Reforestando Centroamerica – Reforest Central America – organized by the youth of Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Panama. They will be not only plant trees, but they will also monitor their growth! In this country, 5000 trees are to be planted in the mangrove areas, on the coasts and in some towns.

It is hoped that the youth of these nations will get to meet and find a common ground as regard protecting the environment.  It is receiving the support of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, who launched the campaign on April 6th.

More than 30 youths organizations are joining their efforts in this event that was actually born in Guatemala thanks to the initiative of the Youth Movement Tzuk Aj. This movement just celebrated its 3rd birthday this year. In Costa Rica, the Federation of the students of the University of Costa Rica (FEUCR) has already started working on the project, and 150 trees have just been planted by volunteers in the private property of one of the professor of the University.  Native species only have been chosen; this is to create an eco symbiotic axis to replicate what nature intends to do, that is to recreate an eco system, rather than just planting trees. The students of the National University of Costa Rica are also going to take part in the project.

This ecological and environmental integration is of highest importance at this day and age. Costa Rica may be more advanced as regard eco-tourism and protection of the environment than its neighbours, but Central America as a whole is loosing its incredible bio diversity at high speed; excessive deforestation is the main problem and that goes beyond borders. Education will hopefully help bring awareness and make a difference. Deforestation to converse in agricultural land for instance or unsustainable timber harvesting for development, often illegal, has to be controlled and stopped. The consequences of such actions are maybe not clear enough to those responsible for them: Central America cuts 390,000 per year, and if this is the official number, it can only mean that in reality the number is a lot higher than this! This represents up to 20% of the global emission of gases that cause the greenhouse effect.

Recently the General Assembly of the United Nations declared the year 2011 the International Year of the Forests. Planting trees must become a habit. It is only fair to fix what we destroyed;  it does not take that much time or effort, yet, the results would be fantastic!

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Costa Rica’s Jewel has Website; Monteverde Now

Written by Mireille

Monterverde, better known as themonteverde-cloud-forest-reserve-suspense-bridge Reserva Biologica Bosque Nuboso Monteverde, is a very small town in the province of Puntarenas, in the Mountain Range of Tilaran. It is not because of the sleepy little village however that it is know, but for its fabulous rainforest. A stay in Monteverde will provide you with the true experience of a rainforest, for its extraordinary wildlife and flora are a precious treasure. Today, a quarter of a million tourist visit this area. It seems like quite a lot, fortunately those in quest of natural beauty are usually aware that such beauty and treasure must be protected and most who visit this Eden are respectful. But is this enough?

Over half a century ago, in 1951, a group of Quaker arrived in the area and its magical peace and beauty compelled them to stay and settle there. They called it Monteverde, meaning Green Mountain.  They produced cheese and lived quietly in harmony, leaving little trace of their life within the jungle. Today many species are in retreat, scared of the mass of people wandering in the forest, however careful they may be! What can be done?

Next Tueday April 19th, on the 60th anniversary of the foundation of Monteverde, the Monteverde Institute and the United Nations Mandated University for Peace will launch their new web site: MonteverdeNow.org. The site includes 11 courts metrage on the area and the people who live and work there. The site is an attempt to a new dialogue on the ecological transformation that has been monitored within this fragile ecosystem that is considered by many to be unequaled in the world for its diversity of flora and fauna.

It is a bit of a dilemma; Costa Rica needs tourism, tourists come here for the outstanding ecological beauty but kill it in the process. Then you have those who live there; farmers, guides, eco-tourism operators, researches and scientists, educators, etc.

The website is a project that presents a series of short films in the aim to educate people on the current situation. Students have conducted interviews with local residents, discussing the present situation and how they see the future of Monteverde. It aims at the foreigners too so that they realize the gravity of problem, which really a worldwide problem is relating to the rain forests of the whole world.

Monteverde is a true natural jewel; it boasts two worldwide known cloud forest reserves: the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve and the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, both with over 10 kms of trails. One can observe an incredible variety of birds and small mammals together with an awesome flora. This is nature as it should be! Visit also the Children’s Eternal Cloud Forest, which is drier and offers a totally different type of flora and fauna and a different experience.

Apart from the natural attractions, there is a serpentarium with many frogs that are now in grave danger of extinction plus an interesting collection of snakes. There is a coffee plantation, a butterfly garden, the Monteverde cheese factory, a bat cave, an insect exhibit, and more! No wonder that tourists are pouring. Add some beautifully located hotels, what more does a tourist in search of true biological and ecological wonders may wish for?

There is a famous canopy tour and extraordinary hanging bridges that give you a walking tour high in the canopy of the forest, the best place to observe most wildlife in a rain or a cloud forest.

Whether one is interested in mountain and tropical biodiversity as a scientist or just a tourist, visiting a rainforest is an experience that one never forgets. Monteverde was classed 14th as a place to visit before it disappeared. It has been name of the Seven Wonders of the World and a jewel of the crown of the cloud forest reserves by National Geographic.

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Yoga in Costa Rica

Written by Mireille

bambooyogaplayCosta Rica is becoming a Yoga and a Yogi country. More hotels are opening their doors to students and teachers and if size permit, to retreats.

One has to admit that it is a lot more pleasant having a class of yoga in front of the ocean, watching a flamboyant sunset or under the moonlight. This added to the sound of the ocean and of the exotic wildlife; you have found the perfect place for meditation and inner peace.

Various yoga schools have also opened recently around the country and now in Costa Rica there is a type of Yoga for everyone. Most teachers are qualified and received the appropriate training. In fact most are outstanding.  The foreign teachers  give regular retreats in the most beautiful hotels. Prices vary, needless to say if you go to a local school it will be a lot cheaper than if you choose a retreat that is organized by a foreign teacher.

This is just a reflection of the people searching for peace of mind and self realization across the world. Amid ecological and natural disasters and wars, everyone is trying to find a balance in life, a meaning, and some answers.

While yoga does not answer everything, it is certainly a good first step, and it is also great for healing, feeling wonderful and fit. It will also help losing weight and boost your energy.

Here is a list of recommended hotels:

Harmony Hotel in Nosara in Guanacaste, Beija Flor in Mal Pais, Samasati Nature Retreat in Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean, Nicuessa Rainforet Lodge in Golfito, Flor Blanca in Santa Teresa, Sueno Azul in Sarapiqui, El Silencio in Alajuela, Anamaya in Montezuma.

Schools in the Central Valley include Kapoli and Krama in Escazu, Yoga Mandir, Ashtanga & Anusara Yoga Studio and Downtownyoga in San Jose, and Yoga Lamat in San Pedro.

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The Festival of the Spheres

Written by Mireille

costa-rica-spheres2You may have seen these large spheres in Costa Rica. Perfect large balls made out of stone. Some people have them to decorate the front porch; they were found in archaeological sites. Nobody still knows for sure what they meant or represented.

There is a celebration day for them, the Festival de las Esferas. It is a three day event, starting in Palmar Sur, in the Osa Peninsula.

The Festival de las Esferas is shaping up to be much more than the usual local fiesta. The three-day event starting Friday in Palmar Sur in the Municipality of Osa in southwestern Costa Rica.

The festival concentrate on the actual sphere and the mysteries that surround them, on the current environmental and ecological issues that are now common place in the country. It also  gives information about the native indigenous cultures.

There is a guided visit to Finca 6, a property that actually belongs to the National Museum, where a few spheres can be seen on site. The aim of the museum is for the spheres to be designated as a world heritage. This would be a great victory for the archaeologist and a boost for Costa Rican Tourism! The designation is to be based on the culture of the local indigenous people, called the Diquis, and nearby other cultures from Panama to the Central Valley and the Caribbean Coast. The museum has to present a guarantee protection of the entire area. The descendants of the people who had actually built the sphere will make a presentation and the Indigenous Culture of Rey Cure will also perform the Game of the Diablitos, where awesome masks representing various forces are worn and the diablitos fight against the toro for days, recreating the fight between the Spaniards and the natives. This normally takes place in January and goes on for days and a considerable amount of  liquor is commonly consumed, however in this case if will only last a few hours. TheNgobe community of Conte Burica will perform the Danza de la Serpiente. Various seminars will also take place throughout the event.
On Saturday, there will be Art fair and local food. A special show for children will take place at 9am in the local school.

With Osa being attacked by developers and illegal logging, there will be a variety of seminars that will concentrate on the biodiversity and ecological scandals and threats to the fauna and flora of the area.

Sunday will close with music, more food art, seminars for children

For those who are more adventurous, there will be trips in the mangroves of the Terraba River, boats will board at Las Vegas Restaurant for lunch in Sierpe.

Finca 6 is just one of the areas where the spheres can be found. They have been found basically all over the country and more are still being discovered today. The Museum is planning to have them on exhibit in the Finca 6, a large area which already has 10 spheres in place. Another site, called Batambal, has 4 spheres exhibited, including the largest one found so far. To date, the museum has registered 300 spheres; that one measures 2.5 meters in diameter. Francisco Corrales, ex museum director, estimates that there could be as much as 500 spheres in the country.

Nobody knows or understand anything about these mysterious spheres; what did they mean, why were they made? Archaeologists believe that the ancestors of the Borrucas made them, between 300 and 1500 AD; many believe they were used as tomb stones. Others think they marked important locations. There are so many different theories; some even say that they were built by aliens by some the inhabitants of Atlantis. Others have declared they were built to guide navigators. In brief, nobody knows!

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